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Hearth to Hearth: Sausage Making in America

Hearth to Hearth: Sausage Making in America – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – February 2001

In the cold of the early American winter, butchering was an annual affair. On the farm, the large animals raised for the family’s meat were killed, dressed out, and preserved in a number of ways. Heedful of the injunction to “use every part of the pig except the squeal,” and considering the real need to waste nothing, sausage-making put to use all the scraps and bits that were too small for salting and smoking. And it offered an opportunity to preserve delectable flavors for all manner of dining long-past the cool butchering season.

Sausage-making was not new in the American colonies, but followed a relatively unchanged tradition that had begun in antiquity. Ancient records from all corners of the world show how early this technique was applied. Paintings of early Chinese kitchen scenes (500 B.C.) depicted them; surviving Greek and Roman recipe manuscripts give us their spicing, general manufacture and use as main dishes or in stuffing’s, stews, and sauces. Apicus, the Roman epicurean, recorded variations using wonderful flavors—pepper, cumin, pine nuts, leeks, dill, onion, savory, rue, parsley, laurel-berries, and the standard seasoning sauce, liquamen. The early directions were clear, the stuffing “sausage skins” utilizing the intestines, uterus, stomach, or bladders preserved at butchering time. Such sausage “links” were dried or smoked over a fire, suspended from iron hooks. Their high fat and spice content, along with the skins and smoking procedures, effectively preserved them; other recipes for fresh sausages implied immediate use. These highly spiced concoctions were undoubtedly luxurious; the Roman army ate far plainer versions, dried for easy and wholesome use on the march.

Like those of other cultures, Middle-Eastern sausage flavorings reflected local cuisine and the ingredients common in their area. A thirteenth-century Andalusian and Maghribi manuscript recommended sugar, almonds, cloves, and pepper, sometimes prepared in “marrows” made from glands and giblets. The equipment was still basic: a recipe for Mirkas (Merguez Sausage) directed the cook to use “the instrument made for stuffing,” and a “funnel” when making an “Extraordinary Sausage.” Many early recipes also specified the use of stone mortars and pestles to reduce the meat mixtures to a desired fine and velvety texture.

It was probably a relatively simple early form of sausage that made its way to Europe. The subsequent opening of the spice trade opened the door to evolving variations, each regional and cultural cuisine developing its own delicacies. Sausage was not commonly poor-man’s food—meat has always been dear—and expensive flavorings were used within one’s means as soon as they became available.

English “puddings” included black or white puddings (a form of sausage made with blood), haggis, and any number of locally-named specialties. The mid-16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Breighel painted link sausages in profusion in his depiction of a wealthy kitchen, “Die Kuche Der Dicken.” It is likely that people appreciated many of each others’ sausage forms—for example, German Bologna found its way into Robert May’s Accomplisht Cook (London, 1685 ed.). May, who had trained on the Continent, may have been early to explore what for him was a foreign dish. Somewhat later, Richard Bradley’s Country Lady’s Director (London: 1738) presented a recipe for “Sausages of Fish” that he had tasted in Brussels, and which he recommended for meatless Fast Days. Sausage was obviously too good to give up, and clearly adaptable. His sausage recipe from “Lady M,” also carried the implication that hers was a high-status dish. In such dishes, characteristic variations sometimes took on the aspects of a culinary art form.

Early sausage making had not depended on complicated utensils. It was simply a matter of mincing the meat and fat, mixing it well, adding salt and assorted herbs and spices (to preserve as well as flavor), and packing it into a tall ceramic pot. It needed careful pressing to eliminate air pockets and covering with a layer of melted fat to keep out air. In addition, it was often covered with a tied-on cloth, perhaps dipped in melted tallow, to protect it from dust. Stored in a cool root cellar or well house, it lasted for months, and was used as needed. This bulk sausage was much like what we now buy in shaped frozen logs.

Links, on the other hand, had the advantage that they could be dried, perhaps in flavor-imparting smoke, and were less likely to spoil. In 1615 Gervaise Markham (The English Housewife, London) recommended that one use “farmes [forms, or casings] made as long as possible,” that you “first blow them well to make the meat slip, and then fill them: which done, with threads divide them into several links as you please…” Robert May also instructed how “To make Links,” advocating hogs guts, and commenting that when drying, they should be hung “till the salt shine through them.”

Early recipes continued to refer to stuffing funnels. This simple utensil eased the work. One pushed the casings onto the long funnel tip and allowed them to slip off, feeding gradually as the sausage mixture filled them. There was far less risk of tearing the casing this way, as one did not have to endanger it with the friction and pressure of moving, compacting meat. In this century some sausage makers also referred to a special hollow funnel-like implement called a “tin fill bowl” to “fill the guts.”

Traditionally, and in light of small-scale home production, it had been possible to make sausage at home without much specialized equipment. However, in the absence of geared or mechanical labor saving devices, the task of chopping sausage meat and fat and evenly mixing in the seasonings must have been arduous indeed. The simplest of tools sufficed. Markham directed the cook as follows: “…first with your knife cut the lean thereof into thin slices, and then shred small those slices, and then spread it over the bottom of a dish or wooden platter.” This was to be topped with alternating layers of shredded meat and fat, and then “with your sharp knife scotch it through and through divers ways.”

When, then, did the improvements in grinders and stuffers begin? According to one bible of antique kitchenware’s, Linda Campbell Franklin’s 300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles, it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that wood, tin, and pewter cylinders with wooden plunger pushers became common. This was the time of growing cities and the consequent wholesale production of sausage for sale in local butcher shops. The Yankee ingenuity of American industry was further inspired by growing consumerism in expanding cities, and enhanced by waves of talented middle-class German immigrants who brought with them great love and experience of sausage. New inventions were certainly driven by demand. Mrs. Lea responded to the increase in production enabled by a plethora of new designs: “You can have one hundred pounds of sausage from twelve hundred weight of pork (live), and since the introduction of sausage choppers, a great deal more sausage is made, than formerly, by the old method.”
With increased home production, one needed more help. It is no wonder that on the farm butchering was often a cooperative, extended family affair, much in the style of apple drying parties. Mrs. Lea’s sausage instructions advised that, “It is a good plan to have plenty of bread and pies baked, and a quantity of apples stewed, vegetables washed and ready to cook, so that every member of the family, that is able, may devote herself to the work of putting away the meat which is of so much importance for the coming year.”

The earliest nineteenth-century geared grinders were made largely of wood. Bill Holt, proprietor of the Curiosity Shop in Elkton, Virginia, has seen many. He suggests that these hand-made box grinders were carried south through the Shenendoah Valley by Pennsylvania German re-settlers. In these marvelous contraptions a long wooden handle turned a central wooden core-screw. Both the lining of the box and its core were carefully imbedded with interfacing rows of sharp blades. As you turn the handle, the meat is eased through the box, all the while being cut into increasingly small pieces and finally dropped out at the far end. These grinders come apart like Chinese puzzles for cleaning and sharpening. I have seen several variants of this design—they have a remarkably similar but curiously hand-made look.

By the end of the century a number of manufacturers were producing cast-iron look-alikes, much smaller in size but identical in concept. And then there were the Enterprise grinders, all their spin-offs,. and even a mechanical meat chopper complete with rotating bowl and chopper. It sure beat a knife or a chopping bowl.

Just as grinders eased and increased production, so did stuffers. The difficulty in stuffing is that the cold meat mixture is fairly firm and requires some strength or mechanical advantage to work it into the casings. Nozzled tubes (wood, tin, or pewter) with wooden plungers were obvious improvements, but still demanded muscle. The great leap here came with the addition of levers, which made the stuffing considerably easier, and finally cast-iron tubs with efficient, tight-fitting geared plungers.

It was now far easier to grind and mix the meat mixtures and fat, and then to stuff that prepared sausage meat into casings by use of effective cast-iron stuffers. It seems like a lot of work today, but we may imagine the pleasure and pride one had in such equipment when it was new. People must have reveled in reduced labor and increased efficiency when performing what had always been a demanding annual chore.

Today we buy our sausages in bulk or links that are very close to the historical forms. It is still possible to make one’s own and to satisfy one’s appetite for special blends of seasonings or one’s personal health standards. With modern food processors and mixer attachments, the work is easy; the product is glorious!

“Very Fine Sausages”

-adapted from E. Smith, The Compleat Housewife, London, 1758

Take a leg of pork or veal; pick it clean from skin or fat, and to every pound of lean meat put two pounds of beef-suet pick’d from the skins; shred the meat and suet severally very fine; then mix them together, and add a large handful of green sage shred very small, season it with grated nutmeg, salt and pepper; mix it well, and press it down hard in an earthen pot, and keep it for use. When you use them roll them up with as much egg as will make them roll smooth, but use no flour: in rolling them up, make them the length of your finger, and as thick as two fingers: fry them in clarified suet, which must be boiling hot before you put them in. Keep them rolling about in the pan; when they are fried through, they are enough.”

Note: the large amount of beef suet (good quality kidney suet is best, if you can get it from your butcher) is important for flavor and moistness. Don’t be tempted to cut down, as a good deal will fry away in the cooking. There is no need to fry in additional fat, to my mind, as the sausage releases its own. If you wish to use this recipe for links, omit egg and flour altogether.

To judge if the seasonings are correct, fry up a small amount (1 tablespoon) of the mixture and taste (do not taste the pork mixture raw). Then make corrections as needed, and retest. If you plan to use this recipe immediately, try the seasoning combination from the song: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme!

Elizabeth Lea’s “Bologna Sausage”

Chop ten pounds of beef, with two pounds and a half of the fat of fresh pork; pound one ounce of mace, and one of cloves, and mix in; let it stand a day, then stuff it in large skins; let them lay in brine ten days, then hang them up to smoke a few days; they can be put in the same brine with beef or tongues.”

Note: This has the advantage of less fat, but needs to be soaked in a salt brine to draw off some of the water and hasten drying. If you have a home smoker, by all means use it; otherwise cook it immediately. As for the “large skins,” sheep casings are thicker than pork.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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